(Little Ezra - Old West)
Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: My usual, others please ask.
Summary: A new pastime.
Warnings: Fishing isn't always pleasant.
Author's Note: Number 17 in the series - this is out of sequence within the series. This story actually occurs within days of the story no.9, "Making Magic." That puts it a bit over two months after Ezra arrives at Four Corners.
Completed: 13 May 2004
Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes comments
Back to: All The King's Men
Buck Wilmington shifted his arm so that his shoulder didn't ache that much. He didn't have to wear his sling now, but the hole had left a pain that wasn't going away as fast as it used to. He watched from his seat in front of the saloon as his old friend, Chris Larabee got corralled by Mary Travis with her boy, Billy, in tow. Oh,oh. The war dog's got himself a bit of trouble coming up, Buck decided, seeing the pretty pleading look in Mary's eyes from the other side of the street.
Whatever was being talked about, Billy was evidently part of it as he looked up hopefully at Chris, his blue eyes begging. Boy's got talent, Buck decided objectively. That little guy knows what he wants and what it takes to get it. Funny how he didn't look at Billy Travis the same way he used to. He'd liked and respected the kid, when the small boy had been suffering nightmares and was being scared by his father's murderer. He thought that Chris and Billy had done a bit of bonding back then. They'd done a few things together later, even gone fishin'. Um-hum. Buck sighed. Must be that. It's been months, ever since Ezra showed up. Oh, yeah. Buck teetered back on his chair, so that only the back two legs remained earth bound. Flipped back one hand to knock lightly on the windowpane behind him.
JD appeared at the doors to the saloon and looked out at him. "You need something, Buck?"
Wilmington stroked his mustache and smiled sweetly. "Why JD, I surely could use a glass of whisky to wash out the dust of the day."
JD Dunne scratched his head and then shook it decisively. "Nope. You know what Nate said, no spirits for at least one more day."
"Dang it, JD!" Buck let the chair crash back down to the boardwalk in his disgust. He noted peripherally that Chris has swung around to stare at him after that noise. "A man's gotta have a little bit of fun, you know."
"Fun's fun, but you ain't getting no whiskey today, Buck." JD was firm. He'd been really scared when Buck took that bullet last week, he'd lost so much blood. Nathan had to dig the bullet out and later said that Buck needed to take it easy for a while, heal up before doing anything too hard. Buck had laughed, but no one else had. They'd come too near to losing Buck.
"Aw, hell, boy, I need something."
"How about a day out of town?" Chris' voice was quiet, right beside the lounging lawman. "Shit, Chris!" Buck half jumped in his chair in surprise. "Don't sneak the hell up on a man!"
Larabee simply looked at his old friend, he could tell that Buck was feeling better and getting bored. Might be I can do him a favor and he can do me one.
"Out of town?" JD asked when Buck didn't.
"Yeah." Chris turned to face Buck Wilmington who was watching him now, looking very still. He knows something's up. "To the fishing hole."
"Fishin'?" Buck thought on what he'd seen only moments before. Billy. Billy wants to go fishing with Chris. Now, what's Chris up to? And, what about our boy?
"Yeah. Mary asked me if I could take Billy fishing. It's been some time since we went." Months. Only, with Ezra here now, I hadn't even thought about it. Ezra fills my days, fills me up. Chris leaned back against the porch rail and kept watching Buck. Need your help on this, Pard.
"So you gonna take him?"
"Said I would." Chris looked away and waited a beat, then said, "Ezra's never been fishing with me. Be easier if someone came along, what with two boys and all."
Buck almost hesitated, let his friend dangle a bit, but then he caught sight of Ezra. The boy had walked up unnoticed from where he'd been at the clinic with Nate. Boy was becoming half-injun, like Vin. Sneaking around. Better do this fast so the boy doesn't have time to think the worst. "Sure. Like that, and maybe old Ez here could even ride with me? Make sure I keep balanced on my gray, still a bit woozy sometimes from my shoulder." He grabbed his shoulder lightly but with great drama.
Chris had caught the look, realizing with a silent curse that Ezra had heard him. He turned around to look at Ezra. "That okay with you?"
Ezra wondered what was happening. Buck looked quietly anxious and Chris looked stiff. Whatever it is, it's about me somehow. "Yes, sir."
"Good, that's settled." Larabee stood up and stretched without making eye contact with anyone.
Damn, he didn't remind Ezra to call him Chris this time. Ezra will notice that. Buck rolled forward in his chair. "Feeling a bit peckish. Hey, Ez? Can you give me a hand into the saloon for some lunch?"
"Of course, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra spoke quietly, melting over and up against the big man's side to lend his small support.
Clinging to Buck Wilmington's saddle horn, Ezra hunched forward a bit to try to take up as little space as possible in front, as the big lawman mounted behind him. Mr. Buck teased and fooled around a lot, but Ezra had seen him take a bullet meant for Chris. For that alone, Ezra would have felt in debt to the mustached man, but he also knew that Mr. Wilmington had helped all of his friends out on many an occasion and was always there when needed. Indeed, the ex-Texas Ranger was an admirable man. And very nice to Ezra in his own way. Ezra felt the weight of the big man's hand on his small shoulder, uncertain if he was steadying Mr. Buck or if Mr. Buck was making sure he, Ezra, didn't fall off of the tall gray.
"Great day for a fishin' trip, eh, Ez?" Buck's jovial voice sounded high over his shoulder.
Ezra didn't answer aloud, just nodding, still discovering exactly what a fishing trip entailed. He'd seen the excitement in Billy Travis' eyes, the excitement and a certain gratification that had strangely unnerved Ezra. It's almost as if he's showing off, showing that he and Chris are real close. Closer than I am. Ezra cast an assessing glance at Chris Larabee who was swinging up easily in the saddle behind the young Travis boy. Happy blue eyes glowed at the gunslinger as the editor's son twisted around in the saddle and smiled up at Larabee. Trip snorted and shook his head, confused by the change in riders, used to the scent of a different small human with his man. Behind Chris' saddle were several long ash wood poles with thin twine tied on.
Earlier that morning, out at the cabin, Ezra had paid careful attention as Chris tied off the twine on two long poles he'd cut fresh from a group of young trees up on the edge of the meadow where a brook ran with a chuckling burble. Together they'd inspected the thin trees as Chris had explained what they were looking for. When the quiet boy had tentatively touched a strong straight sapling, Larabee had smiled. The child was a quick learner. Chris had chopped it and a neighbor down with a few strokes of his travel hatchet.
Ezra's small hands had grappled with one sapling as Chris demonstrated how to pull off any branchlets, then peel and scrape back the bark on the other. The gunman had waited patiently as the slight, chestnut-haired boy silently struggled, never complaining or asking for help. Boy's got a will and some real toughness inside. Finally finished, they had sat on cold mossy rocks beside the sparkling streambed as Chris whittled the ends of the poles and notched them to receive the twine.
The early morning light, the waking chirrups of birds and the drip of late dew had all made the moment dreamlike. The serious look on little Ezra's face, pink tongue just showing at the corner of his mouth, as he carefully shaved the bark with Chris' small whittling knife had been mesmerizing. Chris Larabee knew at that moment that no matter what happened, if this boy wanted to stay with him, then he'd find a way to make it happen.
Judge Travis had raised an eyebrow when he and Larabee discussed the boy earlier in the week and Chris had stated that the child would remain with him. Travis had unsuccessfully questioned Ezra and come away shaking his head. He'd heard from a number of townsfolk about how the boy had arrived, and how he had since survived, becoming a small seventh to the six men who kept Four Corners safe. Despite what his daughter-in-law had told him, Orrin Travis was not ready to simply order the boy off to an orphanage. No, not when there was such a clear bond with an adult, a very competent if unusual adult. In fact, if he was truthful with himself, he admitted that all six of the lawmen had clearly bonded with this one little boy and seemed to be doing a very competent job of caring for him. But taking care of a child wasn't necessarily enough. What convinced Orrin to leave Ezra in Chris Larabee's care for now was a small enough scene, played out in private while Travis was an unseen witness.
Ezra had been following Vin Tanner out behind the hotel, in the open prairie grass. Travis, smoking a cigar and taking the air from his hotel room window, had looked out and spotted the pair, and then, just beyond them, Larabee, seated on an old stump up near a rise of land where grass gave way to rock. The gunfighter seemed oblivious to the pair, cleaning and oiling his weapons in the sunshine, but Travis could see the small movements as Larabee's head turned slightly to keep the boy and the tracker in sight.
Then the pair had frozen, both looking at the ground in front of them, Tanner slowly putting out a long arm in front of the still child. Orrin had moved forward until he practically hung out the window, not realizing his own peril at first, then with a start, pulling back and holding the sill as he stared at the drama below.
Quick as a darting hawk, Tanner had reached out and grabbed something with a shout. He held up a wriggling snake, long, brown, diamond-backed and ugly. The child stood his ground but Larabee was up and running before Travis could turn his head. With a smooth movement, the man in black had snatched the child up and away from Tanner's trophy, spitting out some harsh sounding but indistinguishable words.
By now, the tracker had both hands on the thrashing creature and with a neat twisting motion of his wrists had snapped the neck. The animal became a limp rope, lifeless and curling.
But Larabee wasn't watching, having turned his back on Tanner, he was on a knee in front of the child whom he'd placed upon the ground at a distance from the danger. Two hands had come up to hold the boy's shoulders as he spoke quietly and seriously to the child. Whatever answer he received, he had shaken his head, his face a picture of proud disbelief, and then, to Orrin's fascinated surprise, Chris Larabee had pulled the child up close and hugged him - and without hesitation, the youngster had hugged back.
Still holding the little boy, Chris had stood up, lifting the child against him, and turned so that together they could inspect Tanner's now quiescent prize. Ezra had reached out to touch and Larabee's hand had been beside the child's, offering protection, just in case. At that moment, Orrin knew that those two could be no closer if the same blood ran in their veins as true father and son. And that had decided him. Ezra would remain with Larabee, with the Six until the child wanted to leave, or until someone with a true legal claim to the boy appeared.
The soft clop of one hoof after another was the only sound on the trail as the men walked their horses slowly toward the small fishing hole along the banks of Pardee Creek. Nearly a small river, the watercourse ran steady and fairly straight until yielding to a cluster of granite outcrops that stood solid against the current. The small whirlpool at the base of the stand of boulders protected a quiet cove of nearly still water, beyond which the stream flowed onward, wending its way through parched land. Cotton wood and willow trees lined the banks of narrow green, leaves dipping low to be pulled at by the teasing water moving smoothly past.
The still pool, with clear water that revealed a rocky bottom, was host to trout and other small river fish that shimmered and hung as if suspended within the torpid liquid. The fish never seemed to realize that they were on display or that their brethren were regularly removed from their quiet retreat. So the spot had become a favorite fishing hole for many a part-time fisherman from the town.
Ezra sat expectantly as Buck carefully slipped from the saddle, his horse already nipping at the fresh, moist grasses bordering the creek. When Mr. Buck reached up one armed to help the boy down, Ezra saw the problem of Buck's healing injury and wrapped his arms gently around the tall man's neck to help. Then Buck slipped his good arm under the boy's rump and lowered him easily to the ground, smiling into sparkling green eyes.
"You're a real help, Ez," Buck's wide smile as much a comfort as the words. He patted the mite on his nearest shoulder, then looked over to where Chris was putting Billy down as well.
Buck stood up and placed a splayed hand on Ezra's back, having to stoop slightly to reach low enough, then gave a light push, saying, "Come on, Ez, let's get us two of those poles that Chris has strapped on his gear." Bright eyes looked back up at Buck, a tiny smile only hinting at the scintillating excitement that bubbled up inside Ezra and that Buck could feel in the child's slight tremble against his hand.
How could something so simple go so wrong? Buck scratched his chin with a rough knuckle, his other hand still rubbing their boy's back in a steady fashion. Ezra seemed not to notice Buck's sadness, simply continued reading aloud from the tale of some fellow named Crusoe on an island. Buck hadn't been surprised that Chris had a book in his saddlebags, nor that it was one that Ezra and he were reading. Ezra read softly so as not to disturb the remaining two fishermen, his voice pure and light, still managing to convey expression as he relayed the tale to Buck. If the kid was upset or disappointed, it was impossible to see from his expression. The small face was as placid as the pool they sat beside, cool and unruffled. Ah, me. Buck let his hand slide up the bumpy spine to lightly pinch and massage the tense muscles in the kid's neck. Might look okay, but he's wound tight as a seven-day clock.
Buck glanced over at his old friend, Chris Larabee, only to find those sharp hazel eyes asking a silent question from the far side of the pool. Buck shrugged. What can I say? Ezra don't like worms, turns out. Don't like stabbing them with the sharp hook, then drowning them in the water just to bait a fish. Not too crazy about watching the fish die, either, gills heavin' and tail waggling, poor critter floppin' on the high bank 'til it dies, painfully gasping. Buck shook his head again and looked down at the top of the kid's head. Nope, never thought of fishin' quite that'a'way before. He stifled another sad chuckle.
The look on Ezra's face when Buck showed him how to put the worm on the hook, pulling out one of the night crawlers that Billy had in a small covered bucket - that was a look he'd long remember. Before the boy could hide it, there'd been disgust and revulsion writ large on that little face. Yep, but the kid had soldiered on, seein' as how Chris was doing the same with Billy nigh on his lap, the blond-haired boy laughing the whole time. Ezra'd looked over at the Travis boy and then smoothed out his face, sitting up straight and tall, taking over the task from Buck, but failing to show the same careless ease with it as young Billy. Instead, despite best efforts, Ezra's fingers had shook, arms almost stiffly straight to keep the task far from his body. But, he'd done it. With relief, he'd imitated Buck's cast into the water and then sat back, like his big mentor on the creek bank and waited.
Chris caught the first fish, flipping up with easy competence, into the rough grass behind him. Out of sight, Buck now realized. That's why Ezra didn't react at once, except to smile at Larabee as Buck and Billy cheered. Then they'd slouched back again, relaxed, letting the sun warm them in dapples of light beneath the drooping trees. They'd listened to insects drone and the horses snort away the pests. Buck had plucked a stem of weed to chew and hid a smile when Ezra did the same, only to grimace and quickly spit the offending bit of weed back out whilst trying to be surreptitious about it.
It was when Ezra's pole had nodded that things got downright bad. Buck sighed. Kid had been likely mostly city-raised, though he knew his way around the horses sure enough. He'd grabbed his pole and done as he'd seen Chris do, lean back and lift, whipping the tip back so that the fish seemed to spring of its own accord out of the water. But Ezra was just a tiny mite compared to old Chris, and the fish had flopped down smack beside the kid. Who watched its death throes in horror. Just as the fish left the water, Billy'd had a bite too, and had been loud and ebullient about it, keeping Chris Larabee busy and unaware of the small drama across the water.
Buck had watched, waiting to see Ezra settle down, but it didn't happen. Hands rose to cover mouth and the boy started to turn green, dammit. With a lunge, Buck had caught the dying fish, all eight inches of it, and plucked the hook from the creature's mouth, then tossed the fading little trout back into the pool before them. Ezra, knees pulled up tight beneath his chin, had stared at the spot where the fish had plunged back into the water, then slowly swiveled his head to stare at Buck now on all fours directly in front of him. Buck shook his head again, ignoring the pain in his arm and remembering that look of horror. He crept close and gathered the child into his arms and turned them away from the water and the other fishermen. Behind him came the sound of Billy's cry of triumph and Chris' low rumble of caution. A moment of silence, the child in his arms burrowed deep against his chest, then Buck heard Larabee's voice raised in question, "Buck? Everything alright over there?"
Buck had soothed the child with a hug and rubbed his cheek against Ezra's head before answering. Kid has to come first. "Yeah, Pard, fine, just near got us dunked when we slipped trying to catch us a runaway trout." He managed a laugh that sounded pretty normal as he rocked his small bundle, turning his head around so he could see Chris. Instantly, he knew his lie hadn't worked, well, Billy didn't seem troubled, but Buck could tell that his old pard was worried. Buck had signaled that he'd handle it, and then Billy was tugging at Larabee's shirt, demanding attention.
He and Ez had just sat after that, for a spell. When the kid finally stopped shaking and looked up sheepishly at him, Buck had smiled down and said that fishing wasn't all that important and everything was just fine, just fine. They'd moved slightly apart, both lying back in the grass and Buck had pointed out a Brahma bull up among the puffy white traveling clouds above them. Ezra had stared hard and finally turned puzzled eyes to Buck. Near broke his heart, seeing that look. Kid had never 'seen' anything in clouds before. Buck sighed and let his chin drop to his chest. We got us a lot of work to do.
After a while, Chris had called over again, said that if Ezra wanted, he had their book in his saddlebags. And that's how things had gone that day.
The ride back was full of Billy's high-pitched voice, chattering away about the fish caught and the ones that got away. For once, Buck had been silent, rocking in the saddle and keeping one hand over Ezra's shoulder, lightly gripping it to reassure. Well, mostly silent, Buck had begun to hum cowboy songs from his days in Texas, just making noise, so things weren't quite so quiet in his saddle.
Chris hadn't said much, mostly just answered questions when Billy had gone from boasting to demanding. Most of the answers had been vague or had been 'no.' Buck could tell that Chris was gettin' downright disenchanted with Mary's son from the way his answers got shorter and shorter.
Chris had tried riding beside Buck but Billy had made a disparaging remark about the lack of success of the other two 'fishermen' and while Buck knew that was the way of children, he could see that Chris hadn't liked it. Hadn't liked Ezra's head turning away in silence nor the small stiff back then presented. Chris had gigged his horse on ahead after that. Buck had a feeling that Billy wouldn't be going fishin' with Chris Larabee any time soon again. Single-armed, Buck had hugged Ezra again, guiding his gray to follow Trip's hindquarters.
When Chris finally drew rein in front of the Clarion Press offices on Four Corners' main street, he breathed out a sigh of relief. Mary came out of the door on to the boardwalk, smiling brightly and calling greetings to her high-spirited son. Larabee made short work of presenting child and bucket of fish. Before Mary could invite him in, he'd turned and led his horse over to where Buck was pulling up in front of the saloon.
Got to talk with Buck, find out what happened today. Ezra's real upset about something. Chris tossed his reins over the hitching rail, then reached up to take Ezra down from Buck. The boy wouldn't meet his eyes. With grimly pursed lips, Chris lowered the child to the street, then shaded his eyes to look back up at Wilmington. "Think you could use a drink, Buck?"
Wilmington, staring at the child who stood so neatly there, brushing his clothing off with short, brisk movements, flicked a look over at his old friend. "Sure." Then asked a question with a nod and his eyes.
But Larabee was ahead of his friend. "Ezra?" When hesitant green eyes finally rose to meet his, Chris despaired. Several months of slow progress seemed to have vanished in that hesitation. "Ezra," he spoke firmly but not unkindly, "how about you go to the boarding house, to our room there, and change clothes? Think you might feel more comfortable. Then you can come back here and we'll have some lunch before we head out to the cabin."
"Yes, sir," was whispered sadly. And Chris' heart clenched in fear. What had happened?
"Let's walk for a while, I'm kinda stiff from sitting all day at the creek and in the saddle." Chris decided it might be best to have this discussion out on the trail, and he wanted to be able to look Ezra in the eye.
Ezra nodded but didn't answer. Once they were both walking at Trip's head, the horse's muzzle nodding down between them, Chris began. "Buck told me about the worms." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the little man flinch. "And about the fish." And cringe.
Stopping, dropping Trip's reins to ground tie the big horse, Chris turned and faced the child. "Ezra, let's go sit under that tree." He gestured to a big, old, gnarled specimen near the trail. Together, they wandered over and under the large spreading branches, Trip grazing at the side of the trail, left behind them.
Chris sat down and waited. After studying things, Ezra sat down also, not quite close enough to touch his guardian. Or to be touched by him. He really didn't think Mr. Chris was going to strike him. Not really. But, it was always wise to be ready for anything after disappointing one of his hosts. It always amazed him how often he managed to disappoint when he tried so very, very hard.
Chris watched and felt the hole in his heart grow bigger. Shit. "Ezra, Buck told me about how you felt."
"I'm sorry, sir." Little more than a hollow whisper, head dipping.
"Ezra!" Chris regretted the sharp tone instantly as the child jerked back before settling again. He took a breath and held it. "Ezra," he continued in a quieter, more even tone, "not everyone likes fishing. It's not important," he added, unconsciously echoing Buck. "Buck told me you didn't like seeing that fish dying."
"It was in such pain," Ezra confessed, face white with shame, he knew people didn't worry about how fish felt. He was stupid. He hung his head again.
"Ezra," Chris desperately searched for words, "You've got a big heart, you care about animals in a very gentle and loving way." Tentatively, he reached out a hand toward the child, letting it drop to the grass between them. "That's a good thing."
Ezra didn't answer, eyes falling to his lap.
Chris tried again. "Trip knows." Ezra's eyes rose in surprise. "Animals can tell, you know. He can sense your nature." Chris paused, and when there was no answer, continued slowly. "He doesn't let many folk near him, let alone in his stall with him." Chris still remembered the occasion when Ezra had hidden there, crying, and was guarded by the big black horse. "Not just anyone can speak to creatures from the heart, and be heard. You have a rare gift. I should have realized what fishing would feel like for you. I'm sorry."
Ezra stole closer to his guardian, finally resting his small hand on top of Chris Larabee's larger one. "Don't be sorry. Most people must like fishing. I've read that it is a sport for kings."
Chris smiled and turned his hand so that he could grasp the one above it. That small hand filled his, just as Ezra's trust filled his heart. He smiled down at the child sitting next to him now. Ezra was relaxed finally, studying a grasshopper that had stopped on a nearby weed. Guess we won't go fishing again, Chris thought with good humor. Never did much like sticking those hooks through those big old worms anyway.
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